Session 4                                  THE TEMPLE TAX


         The assessment of one-third shekel which was started with Ezra and Nehemiah during the building of the second Temple could not last.  It was an odd amount.  The eventual tax placed upon the individual Jew was “adjusted” to one-half shekel.

    The one-half shekel, the rabbis proclaimed, was a Biblical amount based upon Exodus 30:13 which says “Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord.”

    This is all well and good as a model until we realize that no half-shekel coins existed   at the time of Moses.  The earliest coins minted anywhere are believed to have originated in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the 7th century B.C., many centuries after the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.1  We can only guess what the ancient Israelites weighed for the half-shekel tax (remember that the Hebrew word simply means “weight”).  One of the reasons for “adjusting” the tax to the half-shekel is that at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, coinage had become very common and was readily available in half-shekel sizes.

    Bressler tells us that as the Persian Empire expanded westward “…it found a need for the use of the medium of exchange that had been implemented around 550 B.C. by King Croesus of Lydia, and his successors….Croesus should be equally famous for his innovation of issuing corresponding coins that were made of nearly pure gold and nearly pure silver.”2

    This innovation of consistent purity of coinage is reflected in the Bible at such places as Ezra 8:25-27:  I weighed out to them the offering of silver and gold and the articles that the king, his advisers, his officials and all Israel present there had donated for the house of our God.   I weighed out to them 650 talents of silver, silver articles weighing 100 talents, 100 talents of gold, 20 bowls of gold valued at 1,000 darics, and two fine articles of polished bronze, as precious as gold.”



           It was many centuries before the Jews minted coins.  The difficulty was in making each coin weigh the same and present a consistent valuation.  If a country produced coins which varied in gold or silver content, no merchant or customer would trust them.  In fact, most of the trusted coins around the world were based on upon a well-earned reputation to be precisely what they claimed to be worth.   Many cities and even countries who did not have the skill or raw materials had to depend on someone else’s ability to mint consistent and trust-worthy coinage.

During much of the period from the 6th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., the Jews had to use the money of those who had conquered them, whether Persian, Greek or Roman.  Pious Jews despised this money because it contained offensive images.

When the Jews finally began to make coins in Jerusalem in 18 B.C., it is shocking what images they were stamping out!  But, sorry—you’ll have to wait for a later session to find out what was on these Jewish coins!


Not all Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The precise pattern of their disbursement is not clear, but by the time of Jesus there were Jews living all over the known world.  

Acts 2:7-11 gives us a broad spectrum of the visitors to Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost:   Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?  Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (ESV)

Because of the vast distances, taxes were not all due at once.  Instead of a system like our “April 15,” the rabbis constructed three different dates for payment of taxes, depending on where the person lived.   This little chart will help you better to understand  the Jewish calendar:


If you live in Jerusalem, your tax is due by the end of Adar; if you live near Palestine, your tax is due by the end of Sivan; if you live in the more remote areas of the empire, your tax is due by the end of Elul.  

In our next session, I will explain WHY these particular times were chosen!


 1 This statement is consistent with most authorities on the subject.  See for a brief recap of the history of minting coins.  One of the problems with coinage was making the coins from a consistently-valued material.  The earliest coins were made of electrum (See which was a gold alloy containing silver, copper, palladium and other metals, and varying in color.  Assuring consistent value of each coin was a near impossibility in ancient times!

2  Bressett, Kenneth.  Money of the Bible, 2nd Edition, Whitman Publishing:  Atlanta, 2007.